Is Vote by Mail The Best We Can Do?

When I published Election Attitude – How Internet Voting Leads to a Stronger Democracy in 2016, I thought Internet mobile voting could be in place by 2018 in a number of counties around the country and then ready for widespread use by 2020. How wrong I was! The momentum against the idea gained strength as media coverage of Russian meddling caused fear among secretaries of state and election officials. The nail in the coffin, for now, was the incredibly incompetent use of technology by the Democrat party in Iowa. This article is not another plea from John about the virtues of mobile voting. Instead, the focus here is about the huge push for Vote by Mail.

I would like to make two macro points before I get into some specifics. First, the founding fathers made it very clear in the Constitution, Section 1, Article 4 the States have the ball when it comes to managing their election processes. In theory, the Federal government could overrule and take over voting, but I believe turning voting into a National process is politically impossible. The result is the country will have to live with a hodgepodge of voter registration and voting procedures. With a paper based system, this is going to cause problems in November as I will describe shortly.

The second point is the matter of “comparison”. Political and computer science pundits compare Internet voting to a perfect system of perfect computers, perfect networks, no hacking, no malware, etc. The perfect system will never ever exist. I would like to see us compare Internet voting to the paper based system which is expanding. That is the subject of this article.

Problems at the Polling Places

In some cases, availability of convenient polling places is a problem. Election officials in Arizona in 2016 reduced the number of polling sites as part of a purported budgetary necessity. The 70% reduction in polling places from 200 in 2012 to 60 in 2016 resulted in one polling place per 21,000 voters. Hundreds of thousands of voters appearing for the March 22 primaries were confused, inconvenienced, and outraged at the excessive wait times. Many Arizonans left the polls in disgust. Others waited as much as five hours. Arizona was not alone in reducing the number of polling places. Rhode Island opened only 144 of the state’s 419 polling places for the April 2016 primary. Open government advocate John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island said, “Voters could be confused because their polling place may have changed from what it was the last time they voted.”

In Brooklyn, New York, there was a range of complaints during the April, 2016 primary. Faulty ballot scanners caused continuing interruptions and delays. Inadequate staffing at polling sites and poll workers failing to open up sites on time prevented some people from voting because the voters could not wait. Many voters reported their names were mysteriously missing from the voter rolls, so they were not allowed to vote. The New York City Board of Elections confirmed more than 125,000 Democratic voters in Brooklyn were removed from the rolls. Voters complained there were numerous errors caused by the purging of entire buildings and blocks of voters. The Brooklyn Board of Elections Executive Committee voted to suspend their Chief Clerk without pay pending an internal investigation.

Crazy things happen at polling places. Fights have broken out in the lines. Inexperienced poll workers have given bad advice and turned people away. Although trying to help confused voters, the poll workers could not avoid seeing how some people voted causing angst on both sides. 

One might say the solution to the polling place problems is to move to Vote by Mail. Pushed along by the pandemic, the idea has gone from tempting to mandatory in the minds of many. However, let us consider some realities of paper ballots we don’t hear much about.

Problems with Ballots

During the March 15, 2016 primaries in Florida, the hanging chad problem was resolved, but other problems with ballots persist and new ones arose. According to the Supervisor of Elections Office, the voters in one precinct in Flagler County were given the wrong ballots, resulting in about 30 people who voted for the wrong county commissioner candidates. The county election was not impacted and there was no effect on the Presidential race, but errors in handling paper ballots are significant.

In Orange County, Florida, during the 2016 primary, about a dozen of the 251 precincts ran out of ballots. As early as 9 a.m., the Pinecastle Masonic Lodge and several additional precincts ran out of both Democrat and Republican ballots. At some precincts, the order to print more ballots was incorrect. Instead of printing more Presidential ballots, more city ballots were printed. Voters were told to come back later. More than a dozen citizens protested outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. The Supervisor had absentee ballots printed and hand-delivered to voters’ homes or at workplaces later in the day. Also, several polling places in Orange County had problems verifying voter registration. The tablet computers used to swipe a voter’s driver license had technical problems. These locations had to request delivery of printed registration books from the archives.

In Polk County, Florida, a precinct poll worker couldn’t find the Democratic primary ballots. When the worker opened the polling place, the volunteer only handed out the Republican ballots and told Democrats they couldn’t get a ballot. Voters called the Supervisor of Elections Office, which told the poll worker where to find the ballots. In another case, ballots were loaded on a truck for delivery. The driver got lost. These are a few examples of ballot problems which happened in many states during the 2016 Presidential primary.

Ballot Complexity

Polling place or mail in, the current voting methods can be subject to error because they depend on a certain level of a person’s knowledge of the voting process. Some ballots are not well designed and can be confusing. Some ballots require a simple choice: vote for A or vote for B. The design of some other ballots is not so straightforward.

In Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot (2009), Paul Herrnson, Richard Niemi, and Michael Hanmer reported on their research into the complexities of voting. The authors described election ballots as having curiosities and inconsistencies in their format.

Ballot instructions, candidate and party listings, party symbols, and, in general, variations that result from a complex and highly decentralized election system provide ample opportunity for all but the most sophisticated voters to misunderstand, mismark, or spoil their ballots and for all voters to feel confused and frustrated. The authors cited the enormous disparity in ballot designs across the states and to individual state designs inconsistent and needlessly complex.

The most famous example of ballot complexity is the butterfly ballot problem in Florida in 2000 when 19,235 people voted for both Bush and Gore. None of those votes counted. It was 4% of Palm Beach County votes. There are many other examples. Most recently, in the North Carolina primary, the selection of a senatorial candidate was placed below the ballot instructions at the bottom of page. Thousands of voters did not notice and did not make a choice. More lost votes.

Early Voting

Many states provide a method for eligible voters to cast a ballot prior to Election Day. These early votes may occur during a defined early voting period or by requesting an absentee ballot. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have been using Vote by Mail for a long time and have enjoyed increased voter turnout as a result. However, there are problems. On Super Tuesday, four million people in California voted early. I don’t know the exact number but it is safe to say a significant number may have voted for Klobuchar, Steyer, or Mayor Pete. All three dropped out of the race before Super Tuesday. More votes thrown away.

The other problem is, because of Covid-19 fears, many more states are being pushed to Vote by Mail. They will be deluged with envelopes. Budget cuts will likely reduce staff. Votes will not be counted timely. Forget about staying up late on November 3 to see who won. It will take days for the counting. Mistakes will be made. Recounts may be justified and stretch out timelines even further. It is logical to expect when 100 million ballots get dumped into the system there will be human errors.

A survey discovered voting on Election Day has been the most popular form of voting with 60.6% of voters casting a regular ballot in person. Others voted by domestic absentee ballot (17.5%); by early voting before Election Day (10.7%); and by mail voting (7.6%). These numbers will surely change for November.

The problems with overseas voting for six million people remain. Soldiers and ex-pats have been conditioned to ballots not getting to the polling place on time and, if they do, they may not get counted unless there is a tie. So why bother voting? West Virginia conducted pilot mobile voting for overseas military. It was quite successful but was subsequently criticized, unfairly in my opinion, as being insecure. There were no problems with the voting and voter satisfaction and participation were excellent.

Mail Votes Lost or Not Counted

Some people lose their ballot or mail it too late for it to be counted. The pipeline from deciding to vote to having a vote actually counted can be long and frustrating. Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT, studied the question of whether voting by mail causes more lost votes, compared to in-person voting. In a published study, “Losing Votes by Mail”, Stewart concluded, “The number of lost votes through the Vote By Mail system in 2008 may have been as large as 7.6 million.” The number represents approximately one in five citizens who attempted to vote by mail. These votes include voters at home and abroad. The 7.6 million lost votes included 3.9 million absentee ballots requested but never received, 2.9 million ballots received but not returned, and .8 million returned but not counted.

The ballots received but not returned can be due to a ballot lost in the mail or the voter deciding to vote at the polls or not vote at all. Votes returned but not counted can be a result of numerous kinds of errors. Typical errors include the ballot envelope not being signed, the name not matching the voter registration list, failure to provide the voter’s address, missing or bad signatures, no witness signature (if required), no ballot application on record, missed deadline, already voted in person, or the voter had died. The President recently said a state had sent every voter a ballot in the mail. That was not true. The state had sent an application for an absentee ballot. The time allotted to sending the application, the voter sending it back, the state sending them a ballot, and then the ballot being returned all on the backs of USPS. It is likely all will not make the due date to be counted.

Voter Fraud

The purported frequency and extent of voter fraud is a highly controversial issue. There can be no question there is a perception of voter fraud. Vivid stories have been passed through generations. One of the most famous is a reported quote from Earl Long (1895-1960), Governor of Louisiana. “When I die, if I die, I want to be buried in Louisiana, so I can stay active in politics.” Losing candidates often contribute to the lore. The facts however, do not demonstrate voter fraud. In 2012, Loyola law professor Justin Levitt estimated, “Over the previous twelve years, the voting fraud rate was 0.000002%.” He found only nine instances of specific allegations of voter fraud out of approximately 400 million voters. Voter fraud was used as the reason for Governor Scott Walker’s determination to make the special voter ID requirements in Wisconsin more stringent and difficult. Even though a 2014 study at Marquette University found 39 percent of voters from a Wisconsin state-wide poll believed voter fraud affected a few thousand votes at each election, no claims of voter fraud were substantiated.

Some politicians have alleged voter fraud is rampant and is jeopardizing the integrity of American elections and democracy. The allegations claim elections are being stolen by unscrupulous registration activists, vote buyers, and illegal immigrants voting. Despite a history of stories about fraud, in my research for Election Attitude, I found no contemporary charges voter fraud is rampant. In The Myth of Voter Fraud, Lorraine C. Minnite describes the results of her research to find evidence of voter fraud. She contended that while voting irregularities created by our complex and fragmented electoral process in the United States are common, intentional voter fraud is quite rare. Minnite examined public records obtained from all fifty state governments and the U.S. Department of Justice. She concluded, “Voter fraud is in reality a politically constructed myth intended to further complicate the voting process and reduce voter turnout.”

Although legally fraud, a problem with Vote by Mail is coercion. Helpful agents may visit a nursing home and offer to “help” people vote. A spouse may handle two votes for the family. There could be a lot of “helpful” persons involved but unseen in the election process. Special ballot mailboxes placed next to USPS mailboxes in certain neighborhoods could be transplanted from a pickup truck to a trash dumpster.

Weather

Regardless of the expansion of Vote by Mail, millions of people will go to the polls despite the weather and possible need for masks. Even with an adequate number of polling places and a sufficient quantity of the correct kind of ballots on hand, other problems can affect voter participation. Long lines in bad weather can dissuade voters, especially the elderly or people with special needs, from voting. Some polling places make voters wait outside since they can only accommodate a small number of voters inside. This will be exacerbated by social distancing. A friend told me her sister in Wisconsin waited outside in 40 degree weather and high winds for an hour and 45 minutes to vote in 2016. Her son in Florida had to wait outside five hours in the sun. Work schedules can make it impossible for some workers to get adequate time to drive in bad weather to and from the voting location. Inadequate, convenient parking can prevent some people from voting particularly in hazardous weather. In some polling places, there is insufficient, designated handicapped parking.

People with Special Needs

Some voters may be ill and homebound on Election Day. Other voters may not try to vote because disabilities may impose physical limitations in using the voting equipment. There are at least 35 million voting-age people with disabilities in the United States, representing 1 out of 7 voting-age people. This number is likely to grow with the aging of the population. People with disabilities have lower voter turnout than people without disabilities. Lisa Schur, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, said, “Twelve surveys covering the 1992-2004 elections, using varying samples and definitions of disability, found eligible citizens with disabilities were between 4 and 21 percent less likely to vote than eligible citizens without disabilities.” The lower voter turnout among people with disabilities appears to be caused in part by their greater likelihood of experiencing voting difficulties, including with Vote by Mail.

Conclusion

The problems with existing voting systems are challenging. The Federal Government provided funding for new voting machines in 2002, but did not provide funding to maintain or replace them when they became out dated. Unfortunately, the machines are at the end of their life cycle, in fact at a crisis, and have not been replaced. One alternative to resolve the problem is to patch the existing system of antiquated machines. Another alternative is to embrace an election attitude.

An election attitude offers a practical approach to voting. A key component of the new attitude is Internet voting. It uses mobile devices and the Internet to enable citizens to vote from the comfort and privacy of their home or at a local library. Though the risks of Internet voting are real and cannot be ignored, there are numerous benefits to adopting Internet voting. With Internet voting it can replicate successful web services such as Amazon which is used by millions of people daily. If voting online could reach the level of adoption of e-commerce, it would be possible for voter participation to increase significantly. With a changed focus, increased funding, changes in election registration and security, and increased access for people with special needs, I believe the voter participation rate would be greatly improved. I urge all of us to compare our fears of the Internet with the challenges of the paper based system we have today.

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